It’s a much faster game now, so it’s actually harder on the referees to keep up. All joking aside, it’s really been a great thing for the league and I think anybody that’s been around the game would agree with that.
After 26 years as an official in the NHL, Denny LaRue hung up the skates for good in December 2014 after having heart surgery. Since then, LaRue has continued finding ways to stay connected to the game, though nothing compares to actually being on the ice.
We caught up with LaRue to recount his journey from Day 1 on the ice, to his rise up the ranks and the retirement life.
USA Hockey: This isn't exactly the most common profession. How did you get your start?
Denny LaRue: I started refereeing as kid for the extra ice time and for a couple extra bucks on the side. Back when I first started, I didn’t have any intention of making a career out of it. There were only 11 or 12 referees working in the NHL when I first started and most of them were Canadians. I was fortunate to be one of the people selected by USA Hockey for their Officiating Development Program back in the 1980s. I was the selection from the Pacific Northwest area and it coincided with my time when I quit playing. Before that, I had only been officiating locally, so that was the real boost for it.
USAH: How did you manage to parlay that into a career? Did it take awhile to reach the NHL level?
DL: That was a couple of strokes of good fortunate. I had just finished with my playing days and a gentleman named Al Rollins (a former goaltender with the Chicago Blackhawks) was my coach. He had the foresight to recognize that I wasn’t a very good player. That said, he knew I had some experience as an official and he had some connections in the Western Hockey League. They gave me a tryout and gave me some games and then continued to give me games. That was a huge opportunity for me, as it got me some exposure. Through that and being involved in USA Hockey, I was nominated to go to the IIHF World Junior Championship in 1985 and 1986, and as a result of my work there, I was given the opportunity to go to the IIHF Men’s World Championship in 1986. That kind of put me on the radar as far as the NHL was concerned. They kind of kept an eye on me going forward and they offered me a job in 1986 and I actually declined it. I ended up working the Winter Olympics in 1988 in Calgary, and as a result of that, the NHL circled back to me and asked if I was giving it another try as a trainee. I did that and then I eventually signed with the NHL in 1989.
USAH: What is your best memory of your time in the NHL?
DL: Well, that’s a tie between the first official game I ever worked and the first Stanley Cup game I ever worked – and for different reasons. I remember that first game, because it kind of told me that I made it, whereas that first Stanley Cup game let me know that I had kind of climbed to the top of the mountain.
USAH: What was it like to work Stanley Cup playoffs?
DL: It was more gratifying for me after its as over. In the time leading up to it, the importance of the work kind of consumed me. It was very satisfying looking back on it. That was the pinnacle as far as my career is concerned.
USAH: There have been a ton of changes in the game as of late. Is that good for the league?
DL: Those changes have been awesome for the game and there is all kinds of evidence to underscore that. The best players are unbelievable. Not saying they weren't before, (but) it's just a better product overall now. It’s a much faster game now, so it’s actually harder on the referees to keep up. All joking aside, it’s really been a great thing for the league and I think anybody that’s been around the game would agree with that.
USAH: What was the hardest part about the career?
DL: It was definitely the travel. It’s easily the most difficult part. Just being away from family. It was really hard.
USAH: Take me through the decision to retire. Was it a hard decision?
DL: Well, I didn’t know that was going to be my last game at the time, so it wasn't necessarily a hard decision. I had every expectation of coming back and working after having heart surgery. It just wasn’t able to happen. That was the most difficult thing about it because I didn’t really have a celebratory last game or anything like that. I've gotten over it. I just really miss the game now.
It was the greatest job I could ever hope to have. I used to always say that I had the greatest job in the world. They gave me the best seat to the best game in town. They let me in the back door for free. And they gave me money to do it. It was just an indescribably fun feeling inside the glass. I wouldn't trade it for anything.